Is there "Happy" NSR?

Cross-post:

Similar topic, Happy New School: Mörk Borg & Gardens of Ynn?, but more specific!

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I wrote a blog-post that might fit in with these thoughts.

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I have always found a striking combination of verdance and that traditional aesthetic of ruin in the second Vampire Hunter D movie, Bloodlust. There are rusted out industrial zones and spaceship palaces and horrible monsters and the ruins of civilization…but there are shockingly green and lively spaces where the people live and farm, and even the ruins are overrun with greenery and life. Its not directly commented on or pulled into the narrative like Nausicaa does it with the fungal forest acting as a source of danger, resources, and hope, but green and black can live alongside one another.

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I’m very late to the party because I am new to the site. But figured I might as well throw in my two cents.

One of my favorite rpg experiences was a game of Troika using the adventure in the back of the book. There was no combat, but there was still a lot of tension in the decision making and interactions with fun characters. The whole experience was very much “Happy” NSR to me.

However even though we didn’t engage with combat (or almost any of the mechanics), the threat was still there. I’m wondering if some of the more grim mechanics actually need removed or replaced at all? It seems to me like even if you don’t use a mechanic, the fact that it is there can still flavor the game and also add contrast. That Troika adventure was partly a happy one because the players chose not to interact with those grittier systems.

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I’m running Blancmange & Thistle right now [edit: oops, linked the wrong post - fixed!]. It is really a great example of ‘Happy NSR’ that nonetheless contains threat and tension (suffocating gas blobs, spiteful owls, etc).

I feel like B&T specifically achieves that by making everything so wild and fun for the players - even while containing real threats to the PCs. The adventure is about trying to get to a party, but the whole ridiculous journey feels like a very dangerous party.

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There are some excellent suggestions in this thread but I’d like to add Troika! to the mix, especially Very Pretty Paleozoic Pals Permian Nations!

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Late to the party as well.

Besides all things mentioned, I take as an example of non-gritty OSR/NSR games Mausritter and Tunnel Goons as well. (Tunnel Goons is labelled on the website as a “game for nice people”. :grinning:)

It is true that the OSR began by recovering that sword & sorcery gritty medievalism in fantasy tabletop of early D&D. However, it is not — of course — an aesthetical prerequisite: as long as they comply with the Principia Apocrypha, nothing wrong to have a light, happy mood for the game. Beyond the Wall is an example, Hero’s Journey is another one of Tolkeniesque adventure. There are many NSR/OSR games taking distance from grim fantasy.

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Mausritter, great call. Totally forgot about that one. BtW is my all-time favourite OSR game for that reason. However, the rules framework is a bit too old school for my tastes these days. Hero’s Journey is most excellent too! Has the same “problem” though. They both adhere to the old rules standard and I am more of an NSR fan.

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Something I’ve been finding myself doing to cut down on the grim and dark is to have NPC’s who aren’t just corrupt assholes all over the place but having folks who are also people doing their best in a bad situation. Even if the world is difficult or the situation is tough, that helps.

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Definitely. If the world is full of bad people it won’t work. There can be bad people but they need to be the exception that stands out.

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Just saw this quote from Ursula Le Guinn:

“The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid . Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist; a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”

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This quote MADE MY DAY. Thank you. It perfectly expresses something I’ve felt for a very very long time. Brilliant, as Le Guinn always is.

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She really was, and I miss her dearly.

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Maybe this: https://brighterworldsrpg.com/

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I wonder, how exactly are games such as Mausritter and Tunnel Goons happier than any other random OSR game?
What makes them “for nice people”?

Is it just the art style?
Is it just the fact that somewhere in the game text it is stated “this is nicer”, although the game mechanics do absolutely nothing different than, say, Into the Odd or OSE?
Or am I missing something?
(I read both MR and TG rulebooks, and found nothing obvious to my eye)

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Good point.

In my post above, I have talked about aesthetical features: on my part, I have intended a “happy” OSR/NSR game as a game that through artwork transmits that mood.

Of course, one can discuss the topic in terms of gameplay features. (So, I will not take Mausritter or Tunnel Goons, in particular; rather, what features a Happy NSR game should have.) I would say:

  • No Combat Mechanics. A non-confrontational approach of some sort. Or at least, leaving the whole combat as a ruling like in an FKR if needed since it would not be the focus.
  • Besides XP for Gold, a reward system based on mutual help in facing difficulties and exploring.
  • Random tables that yield a “positive mood” of some sort. E.g. “1d6+1 Eflings offering Sunstones to travellers who tell a nice story”

I am aware that these a just quite general hints. But I cannot think of any specific mechanical feature.

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I think these would all be mechanical elements that, put together, would shape deeply the play experience towards a brighter kind of adventuring :slight_smile:

There could be mechanics on the GM side too.

  • one that I found super effective in fostering less violent approaches to adventure is to give the GM simple tools to “make everything into simple people”.
    There are a few techniques that can be used to give human/person -like traits to anything. Using them profusely makes it that much harder for Players to just go psycho-killer and still feel ok with it :wink:
  • other rules and procedures can help the GM to leverage Player Flags in order to present (on the fly or through prep) situations and challenges that are not about aggression and domination (win/lose) but rather about interesting choices, personal stakes, consequences and how they will affect others
  • NPC management rules… I mean… how different would play be if a “Monster Stat Block” was all about their motivation and goal and fears and hopes, rather than attack numbers?
    This requires an appropriate combat (or conflict resolution) system, but it would affect A LOT the way the GM reasons about enemies and challenges.

On the Player side there are options too.
The previous posts have already offered plenty of great ideas, but to add my two cents I will add a counter-intuitive idea I have seen work in practice:

  • making violence dangerous, albeit effective, actually helps prevent it
  • clearly showing the larger cost and consequences of violence also helps, especially if the GM used some technique to “humanise” whatever opposition the violence was used against
  • the key is to not make violence “cool” or a “spectacle” … most grimdark games make a big talk of how terrible their violence is, but they do so because they frame it in a “fun” way. The beauty and aesthetic of gore.
    Take away the glamour, and the play effect will be quite different.
    This is something I see many OSR games at least attempt to do… not all succeed, it still feels too “heroic” and too “game-able” in many cases… but the concept in itself is not bad! :slight_smile:

This is all pretty generic, but in my experience a game resting on similar core mechanics will go a looong way in ensuring that the play activity is much more hopeful and brighter, no matter what aesthetics are painted on it.
Then of course, the right aesthetics would enhance the effect even more, helping to set the best expectations.
But they would work just as well with a dissonant aesthetic, to produce something in the vein of “the hope is brighter where the shadows are darker:heart:

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These are all good suggestions I would like to try one day.

I would add as mechanic something like a reward for solving conflict in a non-confrontational way. E.g. You get XP (or another kind of reward) if you convince the goblins to leave the mound and help them to find an house.

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One place to look for this can be The Solar System by Eero Tuovinen, and the mechanic of Keys.

In a nutshell, they present a simple framework for Player generated XP rewards.
Players define a “key” for their PC that rewards them with XP when the PC does something in the fiction that triggers a certain condition.
In a way it’s a more specialised predecessor of modern “moves” from PbtA games.

Some keys could be setting or mission relevant.
Some could be pre-set by the GM, being available to all PCs in addition to the 1 or 2 they create for their own personal goals and aims.

They can also not be achievement driven, but narrative. Like, get 1xp for being kind during a scene. Or for enacting alternatives to violence.

Originally they actually also work if you reward violent or dark behavior. The idea being: it’s official, it’s public, everyone expects it from your PC, and (since it passed the initial creation/vetting phase) everyone likes and approves of such idea.
So, whatever you do, it’s just “good roleplay” because it reinforces the expectations we have for your PC.
And if you don’t do it, even better, it’s a surprise!

Actually the classic Keys also have a “buy-out” condition that grants 10xp all at once.
It usually triggers when the PC does something completely contrary to the original intent of the key (like, when a pacifist finally chooses to do violence).
Once you trigger it, you cash in the XP but then the whole Key is “done”. You can’t use it anymore, but stays on the sheet to remind you of your past.
Then you get a new key.

This introduces personal character evolution and arks at no cost for the GM’s sanity.
It focuses the more obvious game rewards on whatever the group feels are interesting PC behaviours.
And can easily be shaped to foster specifically “brighter” themes in play.

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So one of the things I’ve been thinking about while surveying the ruins of the OSR, and remembering my own early days on G+ that there’s always been a “Happy” side to the old OSR.

Back in 2011 or so when I started getting involved, the aesthetics that interested me and really brought me back to RPG, was the “Gonzo” one. Specifically the science fantasy setting of Anomalous Subsurface Environment and blogs like Sorcerer’s Skull with it’s Weird Adventures.

I think Gonzo, and its sort of high lethality absurdity, where the world is awful for the PCs but in a bizarrely ridiculous way, works just as well as grimdark for classic style high lethality systems. The question I’d have in 2020 is how this gonzo style interacts with the contemporary “Cozy” style of design. Grimdark seems a bit more directly in opposition to the Cozy style, but I do wonder if this opposition itself stands between gonzo aesthetics and wider recognition.

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